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American Moral Exceptionalism
American Moral Exceptionalism
Eric Luis Uhlmann
Northwestern University
T. Andrew Poehlman
Southern Methodist University
John A. Bargh
Yale University
Eric Luis Uhlmann
Ford Motor Company Center for Global Citizenship
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
Donald P. Jacobs Center
2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208-2001
Tel: (203)-687-9269
E-mail: [email protected]
KEYWORDS: American culture, Puritanism, Protestantism, implicit, automaticity
American Moral Exceptionalism
The judgments and actions of contemporary Americans reflect the implicit influence of
America‘s Puritan-Protestant heritage. Americans valorize individual merit, a residue of
the Protestant emphasis on a personal relationship with God and earthly rewards and
punishments. And the U.S. has remained deeply religious and traditional in the face of
enormous prosperity, at least in part attributable to the founding influence of the PuritanProtestants. Americans, but not members of comparison cultures, implicitly link work
and divine salvation and display other judgmental biases consistent with implicit
Puritanism. As predicted by theories of implicit social cognition, which hold that the
influence of traditional cultural values is strongest at an implicit level, less religious and
non-Protestant Americans are just as likely to display such effects as devout American
American Moral Exceptionalism
In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1840/1990) became
the first major scholar to characterize America as exceptional, and many others have
since followed suit (e.g., Baker, 2005; Kingdon, 1999; Lipset, 1996; Shafer, 1991; Voss,
1993). While the focus of these commentators differed— the small size of the federal
government in the case of Kingdon (1999), the ostensive American crisis of values in the
case of Baker (2005)— they shared a sense that America is somehow qualitatively
different from other countries, and that this difference needs explaining.
As we will argue, much of American culture‘s unique quality stems from its
Puritan-Protestant heritage.1 Moreover, contemporary manifestations of PuritanProtestant values are frequently implicit and automatic. In making this case, we draw on
the work of Sanchez-Burks (2002, 2005), who demonstrates that American Protestants
implicitly follow a ―Protestant relational ideology‖ which prescribes impersonal work
relationships. The research reported in this chapter extends this important work into the
domain of moral values (i.e., questions of right and wrong rather than appropriateness),
and further focuses on cases in which non-Protestant and less religious Americans display
judgments consistent with traditional Puritan-Protestant values.
We focus on two key ways in which American moral values are ―exceptional‖ in
the sense of diverging markedly from the norm, both of which have their roots in
America‘s Puritan-Protestant heritage. First, American culture valorizes individual merit
to a remarkable degree. This is due in part to the Protestant emphasis on an individual
relationship with God and notion of earthly punishments and rewards.
Second, and just as importantly, the developmental course of American culture
diverges sharply from the norm around the world. Almost as a rule, wealth and
American Moral Exceptionalism
democracy engender secular, less traditional values (Inglehart, 1997; Inglehart & Welzel,
2005). Because historically Protestant countries industrialized and became wealthy prior
to other cultures, they were also the first to secularize and are today among the world‘s
least traditional societies. The major exception is the United States, which remains
deeply religious and traditional, a consequence of its heritage as a nation founded by
extremely devout Puritan Protestants. Indeed, contemporary American values are in
some respects more similar to those of impoverished totalitarian states than to those of
other wealthy democracies. Despite their extremely high level of economic development,
Americans are relatively likely to emphasize the importance of religion, endorse
traditional family values, and reject divorce, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and
suicide. Of particular relevance to contemporary issues such as the war on terror,
Americans are much more absolutist when it comes to their moral standards than one
would predict based on national wealth.
While drawing on the results of self-report questionnaire measures like the World
Values Survey (Inglehart, 1997), we emphasize that the implicit cognitions of
contemporary Americans are especially likely to reflect traditional Puritan-Protestant
morality. Of particular interest, Americans implicitly link work with divine salvation.
We consider this and related phenomena manifestations of implicit Puritanism.
Implicit Cultural Cognition
There has been an increasing recognition within psychology that implicit
cognitions play a central role in human judgments and behaviors (Bargh & Chartrand,
1999; Dijksterhaus & Bargh, 2001; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Haidt, 2001; Nisbett &
Wilson, 1977; Rudman, 2004; Sanchez-Burks, 2002; Wegner & Bargh, 1998; Wilson,
American Moral Exceptionalism
2002). The term implicit is used to refer to cognitions that are intuitive, spontaneous,
effortless, unintentional, uncontrollable, and/or unconscious (Bargh, 1994; Greenwald &
Banaji, 1995; Wegner & Bargh, 1998; Wilson, 2002). However it is rare for all of these
characteristics to occur together (Bargh, 1994). In the present chapter, we use the label
implicit to refer to cognitions that are intuitive, spontaneous, effortless, and which do not
require a conscious intention on part of the social perceiver in order to occur. But the
social perceiver is in many cases consciously aware of her cognition and can, at least in
theory, deliberatively correct for its influence.
To take one example, an American social perceiver may intuitively,
spontaneously and effortlessly judge a lottery winner who retires at a young age
negatively. No conscious intention to evaluate the lottery winner needed to take place in
order for the judgment to occur. However, the social perceiver is aware of her negative
judgment, and may upon deliberation decide it does not make sense for the lottery winner
to continue working when it is no longer economically necessary.
This places the cognitions we examine in this chapter in a similar category to
those described in Haidt‘s (2001) influential social intuitionist model. He argues
persuasively that moral judgments are typically intuitive rather than reasoned, and
culturally socialized rather than individually chosen. Supporting this thesis, participants
find themselves "morally dumbfounded" (i.e., unable to muster an effective logical
argument) when asked to explain their opposition to harmless yet culturally condemned
acts such as washing the toilet with the national flag and eating the family dog after it has
been killed by a car (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993). Moral judgments occur
spontaneously, but their logical justifications are often rationalizations rather than true
American Moral Exceptionalism
reasons (for additional empirical evidence, see Uhlmann, Pizarro, Tannenbaum, & Ditto,
Not only indirect measures, but also explicit scenarios and survey questions like
those used in social intuitionist studies (Haidt, 2001; Haidt et al., 1993) and the World
Values Survey (Inglehart, 1997) can tap into implicit cognitions. As we will see,
American participants are much more likely than members of other wealthy democracies
to view moral values in black and white terms (Baker, 2005). While this sense of moral
absolutism is consciously reportable, it is at the same time implicit in the sense that
Americans are unaware of the influence that their Puritan-Protestant heritage has on their
view of morality. In other words, they are unconscious of the source of their moral
absolutism (Gawronski, Hofmann, & Wilbur, 2006; Wilson, 2002). And values can also
operate implicitly, for example when the conscious belief that moral principles are
absolute unconsciously influences the extent to which unsavory political allies are recharacterized as morally upstanding (Gawronski et al., 2006; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995).
Supporting the profound impact of culture on implicit cognitions, studies show
that subtly activated cultural concepts exert a powerful influence on judgments and
behaviors (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998;
Kawakami, Dovidio, & Dijksterhuis, 2003). For example, unscrambling sentences
containing words related to stereotypes of the elderly (e.g., Florida, bingo) led college
students to walk more slowly as they left the laboratory (Bargh et al., 1996), and
subliminal exposure to pictures of skinheads led them to endorse more negative attitudes
towards immigrants and racial minorities (Kawakami et al., 2003). These striking
American Moral Exceptionalism
findings suggest that cultural ideas can prime actions without the individual's awareness
of their influence (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999).
More stable implicit beliefs likewise reflect the cultural context (Banaji, 2001;
Blair, Judd, & Fallman, 2004; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Greenwald, McGhee, &
Schwartz, 1998; Rudman, 2004). The pervasiveness of implicit racial stereotyping is an
excellent example. Exposure to cultural stereotypes of Black Americans creates a mental
association between Black Americans and crime. This association can lead individuals to
discriminate under conditions in which it is difficult to consciously override the tendency
to stereotype. Consistent with this, White Americans playing the part of a police officer
in a virtual reality game accidentally shoot Black civilians when obliged to respond
quickly (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002; Greenwald, Oakes, & Hoffman,
Prominent cultural researchers have speculated that most cultural influences are
similarly implicit (e.g., Cohen, 1997; Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, &
Norenzayan, 2001; Norris & Inglehart, 2004; Sanchez-Burks, 2002, 2005; Sperber, 1985;
Weber, 1904/1958). While general principles of how the mind works suggest that
implicit cognitions are especially likely to reflect traditional cultural values (Banaji,
2001; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Rudman, 2004), the content of those values are based
on each country's cultural history. In a case of the United States, that history is especially
unique and interesting (Sanchez-Burks, 2002, 2005).
America‘s Unique Cultural History
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber (1904/1958)
argued that Protestantism was a major factor in encouraging the development of modern
American Moral Exceptionalism
capitalism. He suggested that a Protestant ethic of everyday behavior emphasizing hard
work, productivity, honesty, diligence, productivity, seriousness, rationality, and saving
facilitated the growth of businesses and economies. The Calvinist principle of
predestination also played a role, by helping to remove some of the stigma surrounding
the open pursuit of material wealth. Because economic success suggested that one was
among God‘s elected, pursuing it was not only moral, but even mandatory.
The economic effects of the Protestant Reformation were tremendous. Before the
Reformation, southern Europe was better off than northern Europe in economic terms.
But over the next three centuries, capitalism flourished in Protestant countries but not in
Catholic countries (Inglehart, 1997; Landes, 1998). For the first century and a half of the
industrial revolution, industrialization was confined to the historically Protestant
countries of northwest Europe, Protestant regions of historically Catholic European
countries, and the Protestant regions of the Americas (Inglehart, 1997). As Inglehart and
Welzel (2005; p. 75) note, industrialization was "overwhelmingly concentrated in
predominantly Protestant societies and among the Protestant segments of mixed
Typically, as a society becomes more affluent, the influence of religion fades and
is replaced by secular values (Inglehart, 1997). Because of this process, in most of the
world Protestantism has become a victim of its own (material) success. Predominantly
Protestant countries industrialized and developed economically earlier and to a greater
extent than Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and other countries (Landes, 1998). As a result,
they also secularized earlier (Norris & Inglehart, 2004). Protestantism has become
something of a fading light in its birthplace of Northwest Europe.
American Moral Exceptionalism
The most prominent exception to this process is the United States, which is
virtually as religious as it enters the new millennium as it was sixty years ago (Gallup &
Linday, 1999; Greeley, 1991; Norris & Inglehart, 2004). In 2000, 50% of Americans
rated God's importance in their life at the maximum of 10 on a 10-point scale, and 60%
attended church at least once a month (Baker, 2005). The same proportion of Americans
(40%) attended church in a given week in March 2003 as had in a given week of March
1939. In both 1947 and 2001, 94% of Americans believed in God. Out of all nations
surveyed, only the United States and Brazil did not experience a drop in the percentage of
people who believe in God between the years 1947 and 2001 (Norris & Inglehart, 2004).
The percentage of Americans who believed in life after death actually rose from 68% in
1947 to 76% in 2001. Seven in ten Americans believe in the devil, as compared to one
third of British people and one fifth or less of West Germans, French, and Swedes
(Lipset, 1996). More than half of the American public, and 79% of Christians, expect
that Jesus will return to Earth, and 44% of Americans believe this will occur within the
next 50 years (Harris, 2006; Sheler, 2006). Over half of Americans believe the universe
was created 6,000 years ago (Harris, 2006). A 1999 Gallup poll found that Americans
were more willing to vote for a Roman Catholic (94%) and homosexual (79%) candidate
for political office than for an atheist (49%; Dawkins, 2006). President George Bush
senior, when asked if atheists could be legitimate citizens and patriots, responded ―No, I
don‘t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered
patriots. This is one nation under God.‖ (as quoted in Dawkins, 2006, p. 43).
What makes America exceptional is not its high level of religiosity, which is no
greater than that of many Latin American and Islamic countries, but that it has retained
American Moral Exceptionalism 10
high levels of religiosity in the face of enormous economic prosperity. As Wald (1987)
points out, over half of Americans say that religion is very important to them personally,
but based on economic development the prediction would have been that only five
percent of Americans would see religion as central to their lives.
The most likely reason is America's unique cultural heritage as a nation founded,
to no small degree, by Puritan Protestants fleeing religious persecution. These devout
immigrants hope to create a religious utopia in the New World. In some cases, entire
congregations emigrated to New England together (Bellow, 2003). This process of selfselection led to extraordinary levels of religiosity in the new colonies (Fisher, 1989). And
while the early English settlers were followed by others pursuing economic goals, it was
the devout Protestants who laid the foundation of American culture. Because religiously
devout settlers got in on the "ground-floor" of a new society, they enjoyed an enormous
influence over what eventually became known as the American creed.
Many scholars have argued that Protestantism continues to play a powerful— and
often implicit— role in the values of contemporary Americans (Baker, 2005; Landes,
1998; Lipset, 1996; Sanchez-Burks, 2002, 2005). We now turn to the first major way in
which America's unique cultural history has shaped the contemporary values of its
populace: the ideal of individual merit.
Americanism as Ideology: The Ethic of Individual Merit
Lipset (1991, p. 16) writes that "Americanism, as different people have pointed
out, is an ‗ism‘ or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are
‗isms‘.‖ And as Richard Hofstadter states, ―It has been our fate as a nation not to have
ideologies but to be one‖ (as quoted in Kazin, 1989). Ralph Waldo Emerson and
American Moral Exceptionalism 11
Abraham Lincoln described American ideology as a ―political religion‖ (Baker, 2005)
and Robert Bellah refers to America‘s ―civic religion‖ (Bellah, 1980). Whereas most
national identities are based on ancestry, history, language, customs, and/or religion,
American identity is based on shared values. To fail to endorse certain moral principles
is to be ―un-American.‖ One of the most important and interesting American values is
the ideal of individual merit. While an individualistic ethos is based in part on the
Protestant emphasis on a personal relationship with God, a conviction in meritocracy
derives in part from the Protestant tenet of earthly reward and punishment.
Scholars from a variety of fields consider individualism one of the critical
dimensions of national character (Hofstede, 2001; Inglehart, 1997; Markus & Kitayama,
1991; Mead, 1967; Triandis, 1988, 1995). America‘s strong individualism sets it apart
from most of the world, which is more collectivistic or group oriented (Bellah, Madsen,
Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Inkeles, 1983; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Largescale international surveys reveal that United States is more individualistic than even
other Western European countries. In a landmark study, Hofstede (1980, 2001)
compared the values of IBM employees in over 50 countries around the world.
Individualism was one of the primary dimensions of culture that his work revealed, and
the United States scored as more individualistic than any other country.
Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars‘ (1993) survey of 15,000 senior managers in
12 wealthy European and East Asian Nations further highlighted the American
conviction in individualism. 74% of Americans believed that working for a company
simply involves the exchange of pay for the individual‘s successful completion of his or
American Moral Exceptionalism 12
her assigned functions. In contrast, only 29% of Japanese, 35% of French, and 41% of
Germans endorsed this view. Members of these other cultures took the position that
working for a company involves a group of people cooperating and forming strong
relationships. Notably, dramatic differences were found not only between United States
and East Asian countries, but also between the U.S. and other Western countries.
Of course, any cultural dimension as important as individualism is multiply
determined. Factors as diverse as having an agrarian economy, open frontier, level of
immigration, geographic mobility, and urbanization contribute to a culture‘s level of
individualism (Kitayama, Ishii, Imada, Takemura, & Ramaswamy, 2006; Nisbett et al.,
2001; Triandis, 1988). However, one of the roots of American individualism clearly lies
in Protestantism's rejection of certain aspects of the Catholic faith (Inglehart & Welzel,
2005; Weber, 1904/1958). Partly in response to the perceived corruption and deviance
from scripture of the Catholic Church, Protestantism emphasized a personal connection
with God. Whereas Catholics focused on the community of believers, Protestants sought
a more individual covenant. Martin Luther, for instance, wrote that each individual is "a
perfectly free lord, subject to none‖ (as quoted in Sampson, 2000, p. 1427). Empirically,
historically Protestant countries are more individualistic than Catholic countries
(Hofstede, 1980, 2001; Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1993; Trompenaars &
Hampden-Turner, 1998).
The United States, however, is significantly more individualistic than even other
historically Protestant cultures (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). The United
States is, uniquely, a Protestant country with many sects, in which people are willing and
able to select the church most suited to their individual spirituality (Lipset, 1996). Weber
American Moral Exceptionalism 13
(1904/1958) theorized that sectarian Protestantism was especially likely to contribute to
individualistic behavior. Tocqueville (1840/1990) further noted that American Protestant
sects are congregational rather than hierarchical, which contributes to individualism by
further emphasizing a personal covenant with God not mediated by church
Earthly reward and punishment
While many religions promise that the faithful will be rewarded in the afterlife,
relatively few make hard promises for the present one. The major exception is of course
certain strains of Protestantism— most notably the Calvinist belief that everything is
predetermined, only God's chosen can achieve paradise, and that material success is
evidence of this grace. Calvin went so far as to argue that Christ died only for a select
few rather than for all of humanity.
The Calvinist principle of earthly rewards made a significant contribution to the
American conviction in individual merit. A full 96% of Americans believe that the
principle that "with hard work... anyone can succeed in America‖ should be taught to
children (Baker, 2005). Such beliefs can be adaptive to the extent that they motivate
children to pursue success. However, they are difficult to defend as empirically correct
(Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Of the scores of nations included in the World Values Survey,
Americans were the most likely to believe that individuals should be paid based solely on
job performance (Lipset, 1996). Pay based on individual merit is so fundamental to how
Americans do business that it is easy to forget that other countries have very different
ideals regarding who should get hired and promoted. For example, promotion in
Japanese companies is based largely on seniority. Whereas 79% of Americans believe
American Moral Exceptionalism 14
that a boss‘s authority is based on the ability to do his or her job, only 27% of Japanese
believe this. Japanese, Dutch, Australians, Britons, and others are considerably more
likely than Americans to view a boss's authority as stemming from power over others
(Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1993).
While Americans believe universal rules based on merit should be applied to
everyone, perceived norms and values in many other societies lead people to choose
loyalty to friends over the merit principle. Pearce, Branyiczki, and Bigley (2000) found
that Hungarian workers viewed their companies as less likely to apply the same rules to
everyone than American workers did. The perception that success was unfair (i.e., based
on nepotistic connections rather than merit) mediated Hungarian workers‘ low level of
trust in the company and low organizational commitment. In contrast to the prior study
of perceived norms among Hungarian workers, a comparison of the values of American
and Mexican bank employees revealed that Mexicans were considerably more likely to
choose to do what was best for their friend as opposed to act on the merit principle
(Zurcher, Meadows, & Zurcher, 1965). For example, Mexican participants were more
likely than Americans to believe that you should give a friend an unearned passing grade
in a class, overlook a friend's cheating on an exam, and write a positive review of a
friend's lousy stage play. Tellingly, Americans construed the survey as a measure of
honesty, while Mexicans viewed it as an assessment of their loyalty as a friend.
Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars‘ (1993) aforementioned survey of over 15,000
senior managers in 12 countries highlighted Americans‘ conviction in an impersonal
morality based on the merit principle. Managers were presented with ethical dilemmas
that involved choosing between the merit principle and personal loyalties. Of the nations
American Moral Exceptionalism 15
surveyed, Americans were typically the most merit oriented. For instance, one dilemma
involved a longtime subordinate whose recent work was unsatisfactory and showed no
signs of improvement. 77% of Americans believed that the employee should be fired,
compared with 19% of Koreans, 26% of French, 27% of Italians, 31% of Germans, and
42% of Britons. Members of these other cultures believed that the subordinates‘ 15 years
of loyal service should not be repaid with a dismissal (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars,
1993). In additional surveys involving over 30,000 managers from 55 countries,
Americans consistently chose merit-based principles over personal loyalties, and
exhibited differences with other cultures as large as 60 percentage points (HampdenTurner & Trompenaars, 1993; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998)
It seems likely that America's commitment to meritocracy contributed to its ascent
as an economic superpower (Fukuyama, 1995; Landes, 1998, 2000). It is clearly the case
that historically Protestant nations dominate the world economically. Anecdotal evidence
suggests that some Asian companies are actively seeking to abandon practices such as
seniority based hiring in favor of the individualistic American business model. And as
noted earlier, the Protestant work ethic may be adaptive in the sense that it leads
individuals to pursue educational and vocational success. However, the legacy of
Protestant faith in earthly punishments and rewards has multifold effects, not all of which
are clearly welcome. The (often implicit) belief that bad people are punished on earth
contributes to ideologies that justify social inequality (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Katz & Hass,
1988; Lerner, 1980; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Americans are more likely than members
of many other cultures, including other wealthy democracies, to endorse the belief that
people get what they deserve (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). 82% of
American Moral Exceptionalism 16
Americans believe that what happens to people is their own doing, as compared to only
33% of Venezuelans, and 39% of Chinese. It is of course relatively unsurprising that
people in poor countries— where life is arguably less fair than it is in America— view
the world as unfair. However, more Americans believe in a just world than Japanese,
Germans, and Swedes do (63%, 66%, and 71%, respectively).
Both correlational and experimental studies support a role for Protestant work
values in promoting prejudice against members of low status social groups. In studies
done with American participants, individual differences in endorsement of Protestant
work values predicted negative attitudes towards Black Americans (Katz & Hass, 1988)
and negative stereotypes of the obese (Quinn & Crocker, 1999). Priming Protestant work
values by having participants complete relevant questionnaire items led White Americans
to endorse negative stereotypes of Black Americans (e.g., as lazy and undisciplined; Katz
& Hass, 1988). Similarly, listening to a speech about Protestant work values led White
participants to perceive a Black person as less competent than a White person, even
though these individuals were identically described (Biernat, Vescio, & Theno, 1996).
Also, reading a passage about meritocracy caused obese women to feel badly about
themselves (Quinn & Crocker, 1999). Suggesting that consciousness is not a necessary
condition for these effects, implicitly priming statements like "judge people on merit"
using a sentence unscrambling task (Srull &Wyer, 1979) led American participants to
justify unfair treatment of low status group members (McCoy & Major, in press).
Indeed, the belief that America is a meritocracy leads to a strong consistency pressure to
further believe that individuals and groups who do less well lack the traits needed for
success. Importantly, the influence of traditional Puritan-Protestant values on the
American Moral Exceptionalism 17
feelings, judgments, and actions of contemporary Americans is frequently implicit
(Quinn & Crocker, 1999).
The ethic of individual merit is among the most important and noteworthy aspects
of the American creed, and reveals the strong influence of traditional Puritan-Protestant
moral values. Specifically, the Protestant emphasis on a personal relationship with God
is one important source of American individualism, while the Protestant notion of earthly
reward and punishment contributes to the American conviction in meritocracy.
American Traditionalism
A considerably less studied— but no less important— way in which America is
exceptional is its systematic departure from the developmental path that most other
societies are following. While other historically Protestant countries have secularized as
their economies developed, America maintains an extremely high rate of religiosity in the
face of enormous prosperity. A self-selection process, in which especially devout
Protestants left England to settle in the New World, helps explain the persistent
prominence of religion in American life (Bellow, 2003; Fisher, 1989). High rates of
religiosity in turn explain contemporary Americans‘ strikingly traditional values and
absolutist view of morality.
Traditional values
High levels of religiosity go hand-in-hand with traditionalist positions on many
key moral issues. Although America has become the world's wealthiest country and an
economic superpower, in many respects its values remain as traditional today as they
were many years ago (Baker, 2005; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005). This includes not only an
American Moral Exceptionalism 18
emphasis on religion, but also traditional family values, nationalism, sexual repression,
moral absolutism, and a tendency to reject divorce, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia,
and suicide. (These values make up the index of "traditional values" from the World
Values Surveys; Inglehart, 1997)
In America's Crisis of Values, Baker (2005) argues that contrary to popular myth
(not to mention the title of his own book), there is no real crisis of values in America.
Comparing across countries, the United States is one full standard deviation above the
mean when it comes to traditionalism. American values are more traditional than those
of any other industrialized country, and in fact more traditional than most countries in the
world. As data from the World Values Survey further indicate, Americans were just as
traditional in 2000 as they were in 1981. Other wealthy countries all became less
traditional over this same period, and were further less traditional than America even in
1981.2 And in contrast to other wealthy countries, in which young people are less likely
to endorse traditional values than older people, young Americans are just as traditional as
their parents‘ generation. Among other things, this suggests that American moral
exceptionalism should persist well into the future. Below, we discuss an aspect of
traditional American morality that is particularly pertinent to the issues and conflicts of
Moral absolutism
A key aspect of moral thinking is whether ethical dilemmas are characterized as
black and white, or in shades of gray. Religions that make unambiguous moral
prescriptions (e.g., Judaism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam) contribute to
absolutism (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005; Lipset, 1996). Several waves of the World
American Moral Exceptionalism 19
Values Survey asked participants to choose between an absolutist and relativist position
on morality:
A) There are absolutely clear guidelines about what is good and evil. These
always apply to everyone, what ever the circumstances.
B) There can never be absolutely clear guidelines about what is good and evil.
What is good and evil depends entirely upon the circumstances at the time.
In contrast to position A, position B suggests that morality depends greatly on the
vantage point of the observer (see Baumeister, 1997). As expected, people from
impoverished, highly religious societies were more likely to endorse an absolutist
position on morality than people from wealthy, secular societies (Baker, 2005; Hofstede,
2001). For example, while 60% of Nigerians endorsed the absolutist position, only 19%
of Swedes did.
Consistent with the high levels of religiosity observed in the United States,
Americans today score closer to Nigerians than they do to Swedes. Once again,
American values depart markedly from what would be expected based on level of
economic development. Americans have actually become more absolutist over the years
covered by the World Values Survey. Whereas in 1981 one third of Americans were
moral absolutists, by the 1990s, half were. This increase in absolutism occurred among
Americans from all walks of life— men and women, wealthy and poor, and all races and
ages (Baker, 2005). Walter Lippman insightfully called sharp distinctions between good
and evil ―one of the great American traditions‖ (as quoted in Singer, 2004, p. 209).
American absolutism even spills out in everyday evaluations. Consistent with the
Buddhist and Confucian emphasis on finding a "middle way" in response to dilemmas
American Moral Exceptionalism 20
(Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005; Nisbett et al., 2001), Japanese and Chinese were more
likely to use the midpoint on response scales than Americans and Canadians (Chen, Lee,
& Stevenson, 1995). But at the same time, Americans subjects were more likely than
even the Canadians to mark the extreme values on the scale. This is striking given the
strong cultural influence the United States exerts on Canada, which renders comparisons
between Americans and Canadians among the most conservative tests of American
exceptionalism (Lipset, 1990).
This evaluative extremism contributes to the American tendency to moralize
social and political conflicts (Lipset, 1991). It is not enough for American foreign policy
to serve the national interests; a broader moral justification or rationalization is required.
When World War II broke out, Churchill openly stated that he was willing to work with
Stalin, and would even ally himself with Satan if it helped destroy the Nazis. In contrast,
United States leaders and propaganda characterized Stalin positively— as "Uncle Joe"—
and described the Soviet Union as a free country.
Moral absolutism is especially relevant to the issues of present-day America,
among them two close presidential elections and the war on terror. In The President of
Good and Evil, Singer (2004) documented the moral absolutism of President George W.
Bush. Singer noted that President Bush had used the word evil in 319 speeches, about
30% of the speeches since he took office. The President has stated "Moral truth is the
same in every culture, in every time, and in every place," and even uses evil as a proper
noun: "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its
name" (both as quoted in Singer, 2004, p. 1). The President's willingness to characterize
issues in terms of good and evil may have played a role in his political victories over the
American Moral Exceptionalism 21
less absolutist Senator John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore. The American public
may perceive politicians who consider multiple perspectives on moral issues as wishywashy and unprincipled (Tetlock, 1998).
Further examples of American moral absolutism include the U.S. policies of
never negotiating with terrorists, demanding the unconditional surrender of nations with
which it is at war (e.g., Japan and Germany in World War II; Lipset, 1996, 2001), and
refusing to officially recognize governments perceived as enemies (Lipset, 2001). Of
course, America‘s foreign policy has been shaped not only by idealists but also realists
such as Henry Kissinger who openly sought to preserve American interests. It is often
observed, however, that American leaders tend to frame foreign-policy initiatives as part
of a battle of good versus evil (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005; Lipset, 1996; Singer, 2004).
Regardless of whether their true motives are idealistic or realistic, that American leaders
feel it necessary to characterize foreign-policy as a moral crusade highlights something
important about American values.
Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) argued that the American willingness to
characterize individuals as evil contributes to the explosive growth of the U.S. prison
population. If an individual is intrinsically evil, he or she must be separated from nonevil people for as long as possible. This essentialistic view of evil may further explain
why American is the only wealthy nation that still employs the death penalty. Hofstede
and Hofstede (2005) are not alone in suggesting that there is a distinct streak of
retributive justice in American moral cognition (for empirical evidence, see Carlsmith,
Darley, & Robinson, 2002).
American Moral Exceptionalism 22
In sum, America has an absolutist mentality regarding morality along with the
economic, political, and military might of a global superpower. While tempered
somewhat by pragmatic concerns, this combination of absolutism and power has
implications for both America's friends and enemies. It means that the United States can
be as quick to demonize moral opponents as it is capable of destroying them. We have
therefore identified another implicit manifestation of Puritanism in contemporary
American culture.
Implicit Puritanism in Contemporary America
As noted earlier, America is the only major Protestant country that has not
secularized. This is critically important because, as research on implicit social cognition
has demonstrated, the prevailing attitudes of the broader society powerfully influence the
feelings, judgments, and actions of each and every member of that society (Dijksterhaus
& Bargh, 2001; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Prentice & Miller, 1996; Rudman, 2004).
Even individuals who do not consciously endorse prevailing attitudes nonetheless
internalize them at an implicit, intuitive level.
This leads to the prediction that contemporary Americans should exhibit implicit
responses surprisingly similar to those of the early colonists. In addition, non-Protestant
and less religious Americans should show implicit reactions similar to those of devout
Protestants. In contrast, members of other cultures should not exhibit implicit
Puritanism— either because their culture is not historically Protestant, or because it was
at one time but has since become predominantly secular. Our recent research has tested
this hypothesis regarding beliefs about work as a means of divine salvation, as well as the
relationship between work and sex morality.
American Moral Exceptionalism 23
Linking Work with Divine Salvation
Perhaps the most strikingly unique aspect of traditional Protestant beliefs is the
explicit link made between work and divine salvation. Calvin, most notably, believed
that material success revealed that the individual was among God's chosen. While
Protestants eventually did away with Calvin‘s doctrine of predestination, his emphasis on
work as a source of divine salvation remained. Unlike other religions, which typically
frowned on the accumulation of personal wealth, Protestantism actively encouraged it.
The Protestant work ethic made an important contribution to the economic success of
Northwest Europe and the United States (Landes, 1998).
While members of other cultures— most notably, East Asian cultures—have
likewise developed a strong work ethic, it is typically a secular one. For example, the
famed Japanese work ethic was and is based on collectivistic nationalism and family
responsibility, not religion (Fukuyama, 1995; Landes, 1998). During the Tokugawa
period, the Japanese people lacked a strong national identity. The imperial state tried to
both increase patriotism and link it to work (Landes, 1998, 2000; Sanchez-Burks, 2002).
One 1930s Japanese textbook advised ―The easiest way to practice one's patriotism [is to]
discipline oneself in daily life, help keep good order in one's family, and fully discharge
one's responsibility on the job‖ (as quoted in Landes, 2000, p.10).
The unique Protestant link between work and divinity, coupled with
contemporary America's unusual status as a devoutly religious Protestant country, leads
to the prediction that Americans— but not members of other cultures— should implicitly
associate work with divine salvation. To test this hypothesis empirically, Uhlmann,
Poehlman, and Bargh (2007a; Experiment 3) implicitly primed American, Canadian,
American Moral Exceptionalism 24
Italian, and German participants with words related to salvation (i.e., divine, heaven)
using a sentence-unscrambling task (Srull & Wyer, 1979). Other participants were
primed with nonreligious words pretested to be equivalent in valence. Subsequently, all
participants completed a task requiring them to solve anagrams. As expected, American
participants primed with salvation subsequently worked harder on the anagram task, as
evidenced by the number of anagrams they solved. Also consistent with expectations,
Canadian, Italian, and German participants did not respond to salvation primes by
working harder. Importantly, follow-up questions employing the funneled debriefing
technique (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000) suggested that participants were not consciously
aware of the influence of the primes. We interpret these results as reflective of implicit
Puritanism in American moral cognition.
Further consistent with research on implicit social cognition, non-Protestant and
less religious Americans were just as likely to work harder in response to the salvation
primes as devout Protestants were. (Indeed, only 15 of the 109 American participants in
this particular study were Protestants, and the observed effects remained significant when
the data from Protestant participants were removed.) This mirrors earlier work on
implicit stereotypes and prejudice, which found that both consciously prejudiced and
egalitarian individuals harbor implicit biases against Black Americans and other low
status groups (Greenwald et al., 1998). Automatic associations (e.g., between Black
Americans and criminality, between work and divine salvation) are picked up from the
environment and implicitly guide judgments and behaviors. This occurs because
associations are readily learned from and implicitly activated by the surrounding
environment (Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Rudman, 2004;
American Moral Exceptionalism 25
Sperber, 1985). Dominant cultural values even influence individuals who consciously
reject them (Banaji, 2001; Rudman, 2004). As a result, non-Protestant and less religious
Americans exhibit implicit responses similar to those of devout Protestants.
An Implicit Link Between Protestant work values and Sexual Morality
While many other countries—often economically underdeveloped ones, as it
happens— share traditional attitudes regarding sexuality with the United States,
American culture‘s implicit link between work and divine salvation is potentially unique.
Because Americans link both sex and work to divinity, sex and work morality should
likewise be linked as part of an overarching American ethos.
This hypothesis is derived from principles of cognitive balance (Greenwald et al.,
2002; Heider, 1958). Heider‘s (1958) Balance Theory proposed that attitudes towards
multiple target objects shift to remain consistent with each other. For example, if Larry
likes Sue, and Sue likes folk music, Larry‘s attitudes towards folk music should shift in a
positive direction to remain consistent (i.e., achieve balance). As Greenwald and his
colleagues (2002) have shown using the Implicit Association Test (Greenwald et al.,
1998), implicit cognitions obey the principles of cognitive balance. For instance, if a
woman implicitly associates herself with the category Female, and the category Female
with Humanities (as opposed to Math), she is likely to associate herself with the category
Humanities rather than Math (Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002). To the extent that
Americans associate sexual morality with divinity (an association shared with most other
cultures), and work with divinity (an association that may be uniquely American), they
should associate sexual morality and work morality with each other. If so, then priming
work morality should implicitly activate sex morality, and vice versa.
American Moral Exceptionalism 26
To examine this possibility, Uhlmann, Poehlman, and Bargh (2007b; Experiment
2) recruited a sample of bicultural Asian-American participants. Asian cultures are
known for having conservative attitudes towards both work and sex, yet do not connect
both sex and work to divine salvation. This makes them ideal for a conservative test of
the hypothesis that American culture uniquely links work and sex morality. First,
participants‘ Asian vs. American identity was made salient using questions like ―What is
your favorite Asian food?‖ Next, they were primed with either work or neutral concepts
using a sentence-unscrambling task. Finally, participants reported their positions on a
number of political issues. Mixed in among filler scenarios (e.g., the debate regarding
hurricane relief) were scenarios designed to assess traditional attitudes toward sexuality.
The first scenario dealt with a school principal who had canceled the annual prom
because of sexually charged dancing the year before. A second scenario involved a
debate over whether a stricter school dress code should be instituted to do away with
sexually revealing clothing. As expected, priming traditional work values led AsianAmerican participants to endorse traditional values regarding sex, but only when they
were first led to think of themselves as an American. While there was a sizable and
statistically significant difference between the work and neutral prime conditions in the
American identity condition, the work prime had no effect on sex values in the Asian
identity condition. This experiment was a conservative test of our hypothesis because
participants were, after all, Americans, and yet only displayed an implicit link between
sex and work values when their American identity was made salient.
Uhlmann et al. (2007b, Experiment 1) investigated whether the link between
Protestant work values and sexual morality in American moral cognition is bidirectional.
American Moral Exceptionalism 27
In other words, we wanted to test whether priming sexual values would activate
Protestant work values (just as priming work values had activated sex values in the
previously described experiment). We focused on values regarding conspicuous
consumption, which is strongly linked to the Protestant work ethic (Weber, 1904/1958).
Traditionally, American social norms have censured the public consumption of hedonic
goods (Fisher, 1989). American students and French participants were recruited for the
experiment. For some participants, traditional values regarding sex were subtly activated,
by having them read about a school that had recently instituted a more conservative dress
code. Participants in the control condition read a similar article on an innocuous topic.
Next, in an ostensibly unrelated task, participants rated the attractiveness of consumer
products that were either utilitarian (e.g., vacuum cleaner, Timex watch) or hedonic (e.g.,
hot tub, Rolls Royce), and either publicly consumed (e.g., Timex watch, Rolls Royce) or
privately consumed (e.g., vacuum cleaner, hot tub). As expected, American participants
primed with traditional sex values subsequently rated publicly consumed hedonic
products as unattractive. There was no evidence of such an interaction when it came to
French participants‘ ratings of the consumer products.
The implicit link between American work and sex morality was further explored
using a memory error paradigm borrowed from Barrett and Keil (1996). Participants read
vignettes about target persons who violated or upheld a traditional American value
(Uhlmann et al., 2007b, Experiment 3). For instance, in one of the vignettes participants
read about Julia, a recent college graduate who lived with her parents and refused to get a
job. Ambiguous information about Julia's sexual values was further provided—
specifically, she had spent the night at a guy's house after a recent party he hosted. After
American Moral Exceptionalism 28
completing a filler task, participants‘ memory was tested. As expected, American
participants who read about a target person who violated traditional work values falsely
remembered the target as violating traditional sex values, and vice versa. For example,
they falsely remembered Julia as having had sex with the host of the party, even though
that was not explicitly stated. These effects were not only statistically significant, but
large (average d = .84). A comparison sample of Chinese participants evidenced no such
pattern of memory errors.
Once again, non-Protestant and less religious Americans were just as likely to
show the observed effects as were devout Protestants. This is again consistent with prior
work on implicit social cognition indicating that the surrounding environment, and
especially the cultural context, can influence judgments and behaviors independently of
conscious endorsement (Banaji, 2001; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Rudman, 2004).
In sum, both priming (Bargh et al., 1996) and memory error paradigms (Barrett &
Keil, 1996) suggest that work and sex morality are linked together as part of an
overarching American ethos. This ethos is rooted in America‘s heritage as a PuritanProtestant nation and current status as the only major Protestant nation that has not
secularized. It also reflects the profound influence of culture on implicit feelings,
judgments, and behaviors. Thus, contemporary Americans exhibit implicit responses that
can be surprisingly consistent with those of their deeply religious forebears.3 We have
therefore again identified manifestations of Puritanism in contemporary American moral
cognition, and provided evidence that their influence is implicit. Still, much has changed
in American culture since the time of the early settlers, leading to certain degree of a
American Moral Exceptionalism 29
tension between traditional moral intuitions and contemporary social norms. It is to this
tension that we now turn.
American Ambivalence
An obvious contrast can be made between traditional Puritan-Protestant values
and certain contemporary American social norms. One has only to turn on a television to
encounter evidence that America‘s religious heritage is losing some of its grip on popular
culture. The empirical evidence suggests this change in American values has been
somewhat exaggerated (Baker, 2005). Notably, cognitive biases lead people to perceive
society as constantly devolving (Eibach, Libby, & Gilovich, 2003). Moreover, popular
media designed to shock and titillate may not always reflect the average American's
explicit moral values.
At the same time, it seems obvious that substantial changes in American values
and norms regarding hedonism have occurred. Puritan-Protestant values regarding
consumption and frugality began to be replaced by pro-consumption values in the 1920s
(Henretta, Brody, Ware, & Johnson, 2000). Contemporary America is marked by a
proclivity for excess (e.g., big houses, cars, and meals) and unparalleled mass
consumption (Cohen, 2002; Schlosser, 2001). A typical American meal today is
certainly a far cry from the joylessly nutritious food of the New England Puritans (Fisher,
1989; Schlosser, 2001). Americans‘ orientation towards hedonism appears ambivalent,
as illustrated by the recent uproar when a television actress appeared in a sexually
suggestive commercial for Monday night football. The commercial caused much
consternation. But it was later revealed that those parts of the country that accounted for
American Moral Exceptionalism 30
the majority of complaints were also the areas in which ratings for her television show
rose most sharply.
Research on implicit social cognition suggests that the influence of traditional
values should be weakest at a deliberative, explicit level, and strongest at an implicit,
intuitive level (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Rudman, 2004). Accordingly, we would
expect that even Americans who explicitly endorse the pursuit of pleasure implicitly
censure individuals who violate Puritan-Protestant values. This may lead to a degree of
implicit-explicit ambivalence among contemporary Americans.
Uhlmann et al. (2007a) carried out several experimental tests of this hypothesis.
In one study (Uhlmann et al., 2007a; Experiment 2), American participants were
implicitly primed with either words related to deliberation, intuition, or neutral concepts.
These primes were designed to put participants in either a deliberative, intuitive, or
neutral mindset. Next, in an ostensibly unrelated task, participants read about a young
woman who had just informed her boyfriend she was either a virgin or sexually
promiscuous. Participants in the intuition and neutral prime conditions reported much
less respect for the promiscuous woman than the virgin. This bias was significantly
reduced in the deliberation condition. Presumably, participants in a deliberative mindset
were more likely to act based on their explicitly endorsed beliefs, and therefore less likely
to judge in accord with traditional Puritan-Protestant intuitions.
In an additional study (Uhlmann et al., 2007a; supplemental study), American
participants read about two potato peelers who recently purchased a winning lottery ticket
together. The first potato peeler retired young, while the second continued to work
peeling potatoes even though he was now a millionaire. Participants were asked to
American Moral Exceptionalism 31
provide both their intuitive gut feelings towards the targets and their more deliberative
judgments. Gut feelings towards the potato-peeling millionaire were significantly more
positive than towards the early retiree. Yet when providing deliberative judgments,
participants viewed the two potato peelers as morally equivalent individuals. Taken
together, these studies provide evidence that Americans exhibit— and perhaps also
subjectively experience— a degree of conflict between their implicit and explicit moral
The unique cultural history of the United States has continuing implications for
present-day social cognition. As we have argued throughout this chapter, this PuritanProtestant heritage continues to implicitly shape the feelings, judgments, and behaviors of
contemporary Americans. More so than even members of other Western countries,
Americans maintain a conviction in individual merit. This stems from both the Protestant
emphasis on an individual covenant with God and the Calvinist principle of earthly
reward and punishment. At the same time, while wealth and democracy have given rise
to secular values in other first world countries, Americans remain both deeply traditional
in their moral values and absolutist regarding those values. Finally, as a consequence of
living in the only major Protestant country that has not secularized, Americans are truly
exceptional in certain implicit cognitions, for example in automatically linking hard work
with divine salvation.
Consistent with prior theory and research on varieties of implicit social cognition
(Bargh, 1994; Gawronski et al., 1996; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995), different aspects of
the American creed are ―implicit‖ to varying degrees. The principle of individual merit
American Moral Exceptionalism 32
is often consciously endorsed, but can also be implicitly primed and influence social
judgments outside of conscious awareness. And while Americans are aware of their
absolutist view of morality, they are likely unaware that this is a culturally specific
perspective on morality, implicitly shaped by the nation's historic religiosity. It is
empirically possible that certain aspects of implicit Puritanism— for example, the
aforementioned link between work and salvation— are not accessible to conscious
introspection at all. (It seems doubtful that even the most hard-core Calvinist would have
consciously endorsed the idea that working hard on an anagram task would help her get
into heaven!) But the unmistakable pattern is that Americans‘ less deliberative,
controlled, effortful, intentional, and conscious— i.e., ―implicit‖— cognitions are
especially likely to reflect traditional Puritan-Protestant morality.
Perhaps most strikingly, non-Protestant and less religious Americans were just as
likely as devout Protestants to exhibit implicit Puritanism. It is exposure to American
culture, and not necessarily devotion to a particular religion, that underlies these
phenomena. While somewhat surprising, this is consistent with earlier work on the
epidemiology of cultural beliefs (Blackmore, 1999; Sperber, 1985), the implicit use of
cultural stereotypes by consciously egalitarians individuals (Banaji, 2001; Greenwald &
Banaji, 1995; Rudman, 2004) and data from the World Values Survey and other sources
indicating that national culture explains dramatically more variability in moral values
than personal religion does (Baker, 2005; Inglehart, 1997; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005;
Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1993; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). For
example, the values of German Catholics are more similar to those of German Protestants
than they are to French and Italian Catholics (Inglehart, 1997; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005).
American Moral Exceptionalism 33
In general, the values of people from Protestant cultures hang together, and the values of
people from Catholic cultures hang together, much more so than people of the Catholic
religion think alike and people of the Protestant religion think alike.
At the same time, there are important differences between American Protestants
and non-Protestants in domains like implicit workplace norms (Sanchez-Burks, 2002,
2005). Thus, the present research by no means implies that there are no differences in the
judgments of American Protestants and non-Protestants. What it does show is that just as
one does not have to be consciously prejudiced to engage in implicit racial stereotyping,
one does not have to be an American Protestant to exhibit implicit responses consistent
with traditional Puritan-Protestant values. One may only have to be an American.
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In the present chapter, we use the term Protestant when referring to the Protestant faith
and community in general, including both United States and northwest Europe, among
others. The terms Puritan-Protestant or simply Puritan are used to refer to a subgroup of
English Protestants who felt that the Anglican Church had undertaken insufficient
reforms when it broke from the Catholic Church. These Puritan Protestants were
especially devout and committed to the values of the Reformation, and— in part because
they were among the first to arrive— exerted a disproportionate influence on what
became the American creed. We sometimes use the term Puritan in reference to
contemporary American beliefs to reflect this heritage.
Ireland is a partial exception to this process, having retained its traditional values
despite an increase in wealth. However, Ireland has been torn by political turmoil for
over half a century. The sense of insecurity fostered by such social upheaval leads to the
adoption and preservation of traditional values (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005). At the same
time, Ireland is a historically Catholic country and Catholic countries are on average
more traditional than Protestant countries (Baker, 2005).
Importantly, these effects were not limited to Americans from New England. Our
samples of American adults were just as often from outside of New England (e.g.,
Georgia in the case of the Asian-American identity study) as from within it. In addition,
American Moral Exceptionalism 45
the vast majority of American college student participants were freshmen and
sophomores at Yale University, who come from all over the country.